As thrash metal built a larger and larger following in the heavy metal underground, the Big Four bands (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax) collected the lion’s share of the album sales, fans, and awards–and still do. Their decades of fine service to the genre have ensured over time that they are considered the definitive thrash metal groups.
But there were plenty of other notable bands who played a part in making thrash metal what it is today. Some fans even purposefully resent Metallica and others for taking attention from other worthy thrash metal groups. Regardless, it just so happens that fanbases evolve over time and it has never been easier to rediscover these other, more neglected thrashers.
This section is about those much-loved, just-as-good, but not as popular thrash metal bands: Beyond the Big Four.
A common discussion among metalheads is (especially those who are disillusioned with the Big Four) is: “Who are the REAL Big Four?”
More often than not, the first band that tends to get mentioned in response to that question is Exodus. Hailing from the same San Francisco Bay Area thrash scene that spawned Metallica, Exodus was well on its way to legendary status just from its debut album alone, “Bonded By Blood.” Exodus also featured guitarist Kirk Hammett for its first few years of existence before he went to join Metallica, and the latter band eclipsed Exodus in prominence.
Although both bands got their start at about the same time and Exodus continues to have a strong fanbase, the revolving door lineup and multiple hiatuses have unfortunately meant that the band was unable to attain “Big Four” prestige. But clearly, Big Four prestige isn’t necessary to secure a slot at Wacken Open Air, the biggest heavy metal festival in the world:
Another “minor” thrash metal band that achieved some success towards the end of the 1980s (also from the Bay Area) was Testament. Another contender for “the other Big Four” discussion, Testament delivered a string of very good albums in the late 1980s before the thrash movement largely ended in 1991. At that point, they tried their hand at death metal with mixed results.
Testament fans were disheartened to learn that lead singer Chuck Billy was diagnosed with brain cancer in the 2000s, but in true heavy metal fashion, he recovered and took his revitalized lineup back into the studio (and back on tour). Just recently the band revisited its Bay Area thrash roots and were a headliner at Wacken 2012, a fine example of a respected group still going strong. “Over the Wall” is their signature song, the one that got them noticed in 1987–a beautiful blend of melodic twin guitars and technical drumming.
Although thrash metal is largely a West Coast movement, a number of East Coast groups contributed to its development as well with a greater focus on the hardcore punk sound (discussed in “Early Influences”). At least one New York group, Anthrax, did this to enormous success, but as always they weren’t alone in the tri-state area.
Nuclear Assault (formed by a former Anthrax bassist named Danny Lilker) played a largely-instrumental form of thrash inspired by the Anthrax sound. Their love of video games and horror movies formed many song themes, and even today one can picture playing a retro game like Duke Nukem while hearing “Live, Suffer, Die,” the opening instrumental from their 1986 album, “Game Over.”
Then there was Overkill, a New Jersey outfit that is generally also considered a shoo-in for “The Other Big Four.” At least one of its albums, “The Years of Decay” is a latter-day thrash classic from 1989. The record featured dramatically improved production as well as a few longer, more progressive songs that cemented a strong fanbase that continues to promote it to this day as a mandatory metal album.
North of the US border in Canada, latter-day thrash metal band Annihilator released the masterpiece “Alison Hell” in 1989. It was praised for its technicality and album concept revolving around a little girl’s descent into insanity. Unfortunately for the band, they were never able to replicate its success of “Alison Hell” in the eyes of its fans and critics, but they continue to record and tour today. At the very least, they have this magnificent album and its progressive, sweeping title track on its record.
Meanwhile, back in the USA (New Orleans, to be specific), a pair of thrash-oriented groups wanted to find a way to incorporate the aggressive hardcore music they loved with a sense of groove. Exhorder was inspired by the blossoming thrash movement as well as groove-oriented material like Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void,” which they covered. It could be one of the heaviest Sabbath covers ever put to tape.
Exhorder may have been the inventors of this new subgenre, soon earning the name “groove metal,” but it was Pantera who helped popularize it in 1990 with its landmark album “Cowboys From Hell.” Led by frenetic vocalist Phil Anselmo and a truly gifted guitarist named Diamond Darrell Abbott, the Texas group gained a legion of passionate fans and helped introduce a whole new generation to extreme music. Although they are considered “groove metal,” Pantera and Exhorder’s music is close enough to thrash that it is sometimes lumped in with Megadeth, Slayer, and all the rest. And their level of mainstream success (including a number one album with 1994’s “Far Beyond Driven”) is quite an anomaly.
Although the Big Four had plenty of success, as we’ve seen they didn’t do it all by themselves. The more minor bands played a key part in thrash’s golden period from 1986 to 1990, so much so the late 80s is sometimes called a “mini thrash boom.” Next time, we’ll look beyond the North American scene and see how thrash metal took root overseas, particularly in Germany and Brazil.
Written by Matt P